The nation's airlines, temporarily unable to provide commercial service to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, have been putting aside their own financial troubles to fly in supplies and bring out refugees from devastated areas.
Relief flights arrived at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport at a rate of about four an hour Friday.
The flights started a day after Delta executives piloted a plane that dropped off supplies at New Orleans' main airport and returned with 140 refugees on board. United Airlines, meanwhile, flew 24,000 pounds of food and water and 30 medical technicians from Chicago to New Orleans and returned with 104 evacuees.
''If we save one life wouldn't it be worth the effort?'' said Jeff Grinnell, an American Airlines captain. ''We're ready to go.''
More than a dozen passenger airlines were part of the evacuation effort, which could bring more than 25,000 to 30,000 people out of the New Orleans area. Hundreds of private pilots are also offering assistance.
The airlift was organized by the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the major carriers, after several carriers began plans to conduct their own mercy flights.
''This extraordinary civilian airlift is unprecedented in U.S. history and is a shining example of how America can come together to help those in need,'' said James C. May, president of the trade group.
The evacuees will be taken to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and other sites picked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials said.
May said Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson called him late Thursday afternoon to ask if the airlines were willing to fly people out of New Orleans. The answer was a resounding yes.
Some of the first planes ferried in law enforcement officers, federal air marshals and Transportation Security Administration screeners, he said. Screening evacuees is necessary, May said, because they're anxious and stressed and some have guns.
While airlines said they were willing to fly airlifts, they want the government to help pay for the operation. The nation's major airlines have lost billions since the recession and terror attacks of 2001.
And two carriers in particular - Delta and Northwest Airline Corp. - are struggling to avoid bankruptcy.
Jack Evans, a spokesman for the airline trade group, said FEMA agreed to reimburse the airlines for jet fuel used in the airlift, ''but other than that, the airlines are doing this on a volunteer basis. The crews on board are all volunteers.''
At the National Business Aviation Association, spokesman Dan Hubbard said the group's members are clamoring to help in the relief effort.
''They're asking us, 'What can we do?' We have assets and we can help,''' Hubbard said.
Hubbard said the group's members, who own business aircraft, have helicopters, satellite phones and aircraft.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., the nation's No. 3 carrier, on Thursday sent plywood, tarps, water, generators and other goods on a donated flight to New Orleans. The plane was flown by two of the company's vice presidents, and chief executive Gerald Grinstein was on board. When they arrived, they were so overwhelmed by the refugees' pleas for help that they returned to Atlanta with 140 on board.
In other efforts:
- Some pilots have set up a shuttle service out of Baton Rouge, La., to evacuate high-risk people to Texas. Others are flying damage-assessment missions over the damaged region and bringing in critical supplies.
- AirTran Airways, a subsidiary of Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Holdings, Inc., on Friday flew two humanitarian aid flights from Atlanta to the Gulfport airport, dropping in more than 40,000 pounds of water, food, clothing, medical supplies and other items.
- Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc. said it would give 1,000 tickets for hurricane victims to relocate within the United States.